THE REAL ISSUE
2.1. The true moral norm
Even though our investigation in the preceding chapter was focused on the origin of the fear of being immoral, we discovered along the way that everyone is really afraid of doing what is (as far as he knows) inhuman; and so we stumbled upon what seems to be the basis of the moral norm that everyone holds.
One of the reasons why this had to be "discovered" and was not explicitly known by everyone is that from time immemorial, the study of ethics has focused on the question "What is it to be good?" When we investigate goodness later, we will see that, because of human freedom, there is really no objective answer to this question. Different people consider different things to be "fulfilling"; different people have different ideals.
But when you are talking about what is "bad," you aren't relating the act in question to some ideal, you're relating it to the actual person who is now doing the act; and the kind of person he is is objectively (to some extent) discoverable; and so it is possible to find out objectively whether his act contradicts his reality or not.
This simply illustrates the fact that progress in a scientific investigation very often depends more on asking the proper question. Unanswerable questions generate apparently "profound" answers that are nothing more than speculation.
But let us take advantage of our discovery.
DEFINITION: A norm is a standard against which something can be judged.
The norm for judging moral badness is the concrete humanity of the person performing the action.
When I say concrete humanity what I mean is the actual reality of the person with all of its aspects and relationships. Some of these aspects (such as the fact that the person is alive) may be obvious, some may not be obvious (such as the fact that the person is part of an international community). Some may be part of the person's reality as determined genetically (such as life or sex), some may be due to choices in the past (such as being a doctor or having made a promise). But insofar as these are real characteristics of the person, then they form the norm for judging whether his acts are or are not consistent with his reality.
DEFINITION: An act is morally wrong if it in fact contradicts any aspect of the person who is acting.
NOTE: The act is morally wrong if it contradicts either (a) the "genetically given" human limitations we have, or (b) modifications of our humanity we have made through promises and so on.
For example a person who marries (and promises to be faithful to his partner) has changed his reality from a single person to a married person; and he now can perform acts (sexual intercourse with his wife) which used to be wrong, and cannot any longer perform acts (like dating women) which used to be morally legitimate.
DEFINITION: An act is morally right if it is consistent with all aspects of the person who is acting.
The act may be perfectly consistent many aspects of the person, but if it contradicts any aspect, then it is inconsistent with the nature of the agent. For instance, the statement you make when telling a lie is perfectly consistent with the nature of your vocal cords as sound-makers; but the lie is telling as a fact something that you think is not a fact; and this is inconsistent with the act of factual communication. So it doesn't matter if the lie "fulfills" any other aspect of you; it contradicts you as a communicator of facts.
Now of course, it is probable that a given person won't know all of the aspects of his reality, and even if he knows them he may not be aware of how these aspects can be contradicted by his actions. We will investigate the implications of this later.
But the fact that you don't know that some act is inconsistent with your reality doesn't make it consistent. And if you perform that act, what you have done is objectively wrong, even though you didn't realize it.
For instance, it was not right for the Whites in the South to own Black slaves. Some of them thought that Blacks were not really human beings, and so could be owned; but that idea of theirs didn't change the facts. Blacks, as human, cannot really be owned; and it is objectively wrong to act as if they could be.
Many people who have abortions today do not realize that they are dismembering their own children; but that in fact is what they are doing. The question is not one of "opinion" or "consensus." Even if everyone agreed that fetuses weren't human beings, this agreement wouldn't change the facts, any more than the earth was flat when the consensus was that it was flat. Fetuses are either human beings or they aren't; this is a factual question, not a matter of opinion. It turns out (as we will see much later) that the evidence indicates that they are; and so women who have abortions are pulling their children apart limb from limb, whether they realize it or not.
Moral rightness and wrongness are not a matter of personal opinion, still less of personal choice. They are simply what the facts actually are, whether anyone knows them or not. They depend on whether the act in question is in fact consistent with the reality of the agent or not.
Does this mean that every woman who has had an abortion is a murderess?
No, not if you define "murder" as a "deliberate attempt to kill someone," because most of these women didn't know that they were killing a human being (let us assume). Murder implies that a person deliberately chooses to kill someone, knowing what he is doing. Abortion is always homicide (killing a human being), and as such is always morally wrong; but it's not murder unless the person knows what she is doing. That is, it's always the kind of act you may not deliberately choose to do; but whether you choose to do it or not depends (among other things) on whether you know what kind of act it is.
So we must now make a distinction:
DEFINITION: A choice is immoral if a person chooses to do what he has reason to believe is morally wrong.
DEFINITION: A choice is moral if a person chooses to do what he knows is morally right.
From now on in this book acts are to be referred to as morally right or wrong and choices as moral or immoral. There are no "immoral" acts or "morally wrong" choices.
Moral rightness and wrongness, as we saw, depend on the actual relation of the act to the actual reality of the agent. They are completely objective facts about an act, and have nothing to do with whether anyone knows these facts or not. When I assert later in this book that certain acts are right and others are wrong, what I am saying is that, based on the evidence I have, this is the objective status of the act (just as when a scientist says that the sun is 93 million miles away from the earth, he is stating what he thinks the fact is, based on the evidence he has). I can be mistaken, of course, but that does not alter what the fact is, any more than the actual distance from the earth to the sun is changed if it should be discovered that the astronomers made an error in measuring it.
Morality and immorality, since they deal with the choice the person makes, depend on the person's knowledge of the moral rightness or wrongness of his acts. Morality and immorality are not exactly subjective, since they depend on knowledge of what the facts are; but since you may not know what the facts are, you can do something morally wrong, but be mistaken rather than immoral. That is, each person's morality or immorality with respect to a given act is analogous to the scientist's knowledge of the distance from the earth to the sun. It is based on the evidence you have about the actual moral status (the rightness or wrongness) of the act.
We will have to spell this out in considerable detail later; but for now, let us concentrate upon the fact that we have found the objective component in moral matters: the reality of the agent, and its relation to his acts.
As long as we have made these two distinctions, let us make another:
DEFINITION: An act is regarded as morally bad if it falls short of our expectations of what it "ought" to be, morally speaking. A person is considered morally bad if he does not do what we think he "ought" to do, morally speaking.
DEFINITION: An act is regarded as morally good if it is the kind of act we think a person "ought" to do as a human being; a person is considered morally good if he does what we think a human being "ought" to do.
What's the difference between morally good and bad and right and wrong and moral and immoral? Morally good and bad depend on our subjective standards that we for whatever reason set up for evaluating moral conduct. If the act (or the person) matches the standard, then it or he is "good"; if not, then bad.
Goodness and badness always depend on subjectively created standards and though the act in question "objectively" matches or does not match the standard, the standard itself is made up by the person using it, and is not objective.
Very often goodness and badness are confused with rightness and wrongness. Rightness and wrongness simply deal with the objective fact that the act in question is or is not consistent with the person acting; there is no evaluation connected with them--no implication that we "ought" not to be doing morally wrong acts.
Moral and immoral deal with the fact that we deliberately chose to do what was right or wrong, and again in themselves don't imply the evaluation that we "ought" not to choose what is wrong.
Only goodness and badness have this "ought" connected with them, because only goodness and badness assume that the "correct" situation is the one that doesn't exist and expects the facts to "live up to" this "correct" state of affairs. But obviously, this standard of what the "correct" situation ought to be can't be discovered from the facts "out there," because they precisely don't live up to the standard. Ideals have to be made up; they can't be found.
If the distinctions above are not made clear and held consistently, all sorts of confusion can occur in speaking about ethical matters. A person saying that something is morally wrong, for instance, might be taken to imply that (according to his subjective standards) this act ought not to be done--when in fact all he is saying is that the act in question is objectively inconsistent with the agent.
Now what the preceding chapter was saying in the facts we started investigating is that people think that what is morally wrong is morally bad. That is, as soon as you show something that a given act is "inhuman" (contradicts being human somehow or other), the person automatically thinks that it ought not to be done (is morally bad). We expect people (at a minimum) to act consistently with themselves, whether they "live up to their fullest potential" or not.
But this does not alter the fact that moral rightness and wrongness do not mean the same thing as moral goodness and badness--nor the same thing as morality and immorality.
2.1.1. A note on "natural law" ethics
What I have been presenting here is a version of what is called "natural-law ethics." The reason why it is called this can be seen from the following definition:
DEFINITION: The nature of a being is its reality as related to (or revealed in) its actions.
Thus, it is "the nature" of hydrogen to have a certain spectrum when excited and to combine with oxygen to form water; it is "the nature" of a dog to hate cats; it is "human nature" to wonder about life, and so on. Obviously, then, for a human being to do something inhuman is for his act to violate his nature.
There are three difficulties with this, however. In the first place, "nature" is used in the sense of what is not "artificial." It is "natural" to be naked, and "artificial" to wear clothes; it is "natural" to talk, and "artificial" to communicate (as I am doing) by typing into a computer and having it print out things.
This sense of "natural" is not the sense that is ethically relevant. It is consistent with a human being as human to cover himself and protect himself against the elements (and against sexual temptations--yes, they can happen if everyone you see is naked); and because of the latter reason, it might be morally wrong not to cover oneself. It is consistent with communication to do it by means of a machine, as long as one is not telling lies. "Nature" in that sense refers to "the condition we were born in," not what is consistent with our reality as thinking animals.
Secondly, there is a sense of "nature" that means "what is normal," in the sense of what people usually do. In this sense, it is "natural" to lie to save yourself from embarrassment, because most people tend to do this. But this does not make it consistent to lie, because the lie communicates as a fact something known not to be a fact. Hence, what most people do may or may not reveal the "nature" in the moral sense, because people often violate their natures.
Thirdly--and this is where my theory differs from traditional natural-law ethics--there is the sense of "nature" as a tendency toward certain acts as its fulfillment.
Traditional natural-law ethics takes "nature" in this positive sense and tries to derive the moral obligation from it. But this confuses what is (morally) "good" with what is morally "bad" and runs into the difficulty connected with freedom that we mentioned above. Thus, for instance, since we have a tendency by nature to know things, it is assumed that the "good" is knowing more and more. But where do you go from there? Does this mean that it's bad for a person who can study philosophy to decide not to and spend his time becoming, say, a professional athlete?
As traditional natural-law ethics worked itself out in practice, it wound up with commands that in fact boiled down to what we said above: "Never fulfill any aspect of your nature if the fulfillment involves violating any other aspect"--which, of course, is actually negative, not positive. So the results of natural-law ethics were actually prohibitions; but it tried to derive these from the positive tendencies of the nature; and you can't logically do this.
So we are not really "natural-law ethicians" here in the traditional sense. But from what we discovered at the end of the last chapter and just above, we can say this:
Every moral theory is actually a negative "natural-law" theory.
As I tried to show, every view of what is forbidden (or what is morally bad) rests on the person's notion of actions that contradict his view of the way we are built: his view of the limits, if you will, of our nature. This is simply an empirically testable proposition. Ethical theories are all over the place when it comes to talking about what is "good"; but every single ethical theory derives what it considers "bad" from the theoretician's view of what human reality (a.k.a. human "nature") is. Even those views that say that there is no such thing as human "nature" say that it is "bad" to interfere with others (because it assumes that there is a "nature" when--according to these people--there isn't one; which, of course, is a violation of the way things are: the "non-nature" of the person. "Non-nature" here is, of course, our sense of "nature.")
The thing to take away from this discussion, then, is that, in saying that the moral norm is human reality or human nature, we are not really "imposing" a view on other ethical positions. When we are at this general level (i.e. until you begin spelling out what the nature actually is and how actions can violate it), then differences among ethical theories are only terminological. All ethical theories agree that it's morally wrong to act as if you weren't what you really are.
2.1.2. The moral command
That, then, is the moral norm. We started out this book with the fact that people think that there is some kind of command attached to violating the moral norm (at least as they understand it) because they are in some sense afraid of what will happen to them if they act immorally (i.e. if they choose to violate what they think is the moral norm).
This is not quite the same as saying that what is wrong is bad; it is even more than that. It seems to imply that what is morally wrong "ought" not to be done in a stronger sense than singing off key is "bad singing": it seems to mean that if you do what is morally wrong you will (or should) suffer for it. That is, it implies that you will be better off for doing what is right than for doing what is wrong--and so in that sense it is not just "bad" to do what is wrong, but "you had better not" do what is wrong.
We have not yet found out whether there actually is a moral command, still less whether a person is "really" excused if he doesn't know what it is. This is still on the level of what people think with relation to morality.
But if there really is a moral command, then, as I mentioned in the discussion on social pressure, it would seem to be this:
MORAL COMMAND (first formulation): You must never be willing to act in an inhuman way.
In most people's minds, you are held excused from violating the command if you are sincerely mistaken or ignorant of what it is. The idea is that if you don't know there's anything wrong with the act, you're not willing to do wrong when you do it. If you knew it was wrong, then you wouldn't do it (or if you did, of course, you'd be willing to do wrong). Those women, for instance, who have abortions and have no idea that they are murdering their children are not held morally guilty of murdering their children.
We will shortly resume our investigation of how people come to think in this way; and it will turn out, once we have got through it, that in a sense there is a moral "command," and that people who violate it without suspecting that they are doing so are not actually guilty. But again, do not prejudge the issue; wait for the evidence.
To put this another way, the moral obligation works in this fashion in conjunction with the norm of moral badness:
MORAL COMMAND (second formulation): You must never deliberately try to fulfill any aspect of yourself at the expense of contradicting any other aspect.
This simply spells out what we said above, that the norm is the set of real characteristics we have, none of which may be violated.
But it is possible to reformulate the moral command in still another way, if we take into account the following:
Choices which are immoral are always choices which are fundamentally dishonest. That is, they are a deliberate pretense that things aren't the way you know they are. When you act immorally (as opposed to mistakenly doing something that is morally wrong), then you know what you are doing: you know that the act is inconsistent with you as an agent; and yet you do it anyway, as if it were consistent.
The thief acts as if taking something could really make it his to do what he wants with; the murderer acts as if he had the right to decide when someone else was to stop living; the adulterer acts as if he weren't married to the person he is married to; the woman who has an abortion acts as if her child were a mere lump of tissue or "part of her body"; and so on. Insofar as these people know what the facts are, they are not being honest with what the facts are; they are pretending that things are the way they want them to be, not as (they know) they really are.
MORAL COMMAND (third formulation): You must never act in a way that is fundamentally dishonest.
Acting in this way is, of course, hypocrisy; and so what the moral command in this formulation says is "Don't be a hypocrite." Don't pretend (by your actions) that you are something that you aren't.
But then why not, if you get what you want from being a hypocrite? And this brings up again the issue of whether there really is a command connected with morality.
[See also Modes of the Finite, 5.1.2]
2.2. The real issue
We have finally cleared out enough of the underbrush so that we can see the real issue that is involved in morality:
Is honesty really the best policy? Are you really better off if you act consistently with the way you and the things around you are, or are you better off if you pretend that things are the way you want them to be?
There it is.
When all is said and done, there is the moral issue. What society thinks, what your parents think, is irrelevant. The question is whether it makes sense for you to act honestly or not.
Another way of putting this is, "Is it always bad to do what is wrong?" This uses a slightly different sense of "good and bad":
DEFINITION: Something is good if it leads to a goal you want to achieve. It is bad if it hinders you from achieving the goal.
The point is that you set up these goals yourself, and if you aren't particularly interested in being consistent with yourself in all respects, but you really want to be a millionaire, then it would certainly seem that stealing in order to be a millionaire (if you can get away with it) would be good for you.
DEFINITION: Values are means toward freely-chosen goals.
DEFINITION: Disvalues are what lead one away from a goal he has chosen.
Values, then, aren't what's "good" without qualification (that would be the goal itself), but what's "good" in the sense of what's "good-for" the particular goal they lead to. In the case above, for instance, stealing would be a value for you because it would get you where you want to go. Values, then, are not the same as what is morally right and wrong, because they depend on the subjectively created picture we make of ourselves as "the person I intend to be," and this "ideal self" that we set up to achieve may or may not have any basis in reality.
So the moral issue now becomes "Is it in fact the case that being immoral (choosing what is wrong) is always a disvalue, no matter what your goals are?" If it isn't, then why shouldn't you choose what is wrong?
Morality is not really a question of values but of whether what we choose is in fact consistent with what we are or not.
It is one of the main errors of our age to confuse morality with values. Values deal with the kind of person you want to be. Morality deals with the basic humanity you are given and build on by values. Morality says that your values and goals do not allow you to contradict your basic humanity to achieve them.
[See also Modes of the Finite, 5.1.4]
2.2.1. The problem
But when you think about it, it would seem that it is obviously better to do what is morally right; because, after all, that only means acting realistically. How could there be any percentage in pretending that things aren't the way they really are, especially if you act as if they weren't?
This seems to be reinforced by the following:
Whenever we make a choice to do something, this sets up a goal that we intend to achieve.
What do I mean by this? A choice to do something means that you consider your action and the situation resulting from it. You choose between various alternatives in view of the results you foresee from the various actions open to you.
When you pick one of these alternatives out, that result now becomes the "reason" for the choice of this action; it is the "goal" of the action, its "end" or "purpose."
Thus, human choices by their very nature have purposes: new states of affairs that the actions chosen are to bring about. The purpose is what determines which choice you make. Even if you choose to postpone choosing, this choice has as its purpose to give you more time to make up your mind. Every choice has a purpose you intend to achieve by that choice.
An immoral choice, by its very nature, has a goal that in some respect cannot be achieved.
Why is this? Because the choice can't be immoral unless you see that you are violating some aspect of your reality to achieve your goal. So you want to fulfill yourself; but this kind of fulfillment involves the violation of yourself in some other respect. Hence, immoral (or dishonest) behavior is always, in some respect, self-defeating or frustrating.
DEFINITION: Frustration is having as a goal something that cannot be achieved.
Immoral conduct is therefore by its very nature self-frustrating.
From this it would seem to follow that honesty is the best policy. If you act dishonestly, this doesn't mean that you "make a mistake"; it means (since you are pretending that things aren't the way they really are) that you have a goal that you can't really reach as you intend to reach it. So you are deliberately trying to frustrate yourself.
And how can you be better off by frustrating yourself?
Thus, the thief wants to own what he has taken (because he wants to use it as if it is his, knowing that it isn't--and so has to be careful that no one finds out that it isn't really his). The murderer wants to be able to kill other people but doesn't want other people to be able to kill him if they can get away with it. The adulterer doesn't want to be married to the person he's married to--or doesn't want to have promised what he promised when he married her. The woman who has an abortion wants not to be a mother (at least of this child); but she is his mother now; it's too late not to be; even if she kills him, she's his mother. And so on.
If it were only that simple. True, every immoral choice is in some respect self-defeating. But the alternative can be far more frustrating.
Take the woman who (even knowingly) has an abortion. What is the alternative? Having the baby. But this can mean disgrace, losing her job, sickness, years of anguish, being beaten up daily by her husband who wants her to have the abortion, and on and on. To say, "She can always give him up for adoption" is wildly simplistic in some cases. Sometimes the alternative is not bad; but sometimes it's really horrible.
On the other hand, if she has the abortion, no one will yell at her; her husband will praise her even; she keeps her job, and so on. Sure, she's killed her child; but once it's done, he's not around to torture her. If she doesn't, he and her husband and everyone else will be there.
Is it worth it now to be honest?
Take the adulterer. Sure, he's being dishonest with the promise he made; but after all, he really loves this woman and he doesn't have any affection for his wife any more. If she doesn't find out, who's to say he's worse off?
The thief. If he steals the television set, it isn't his, but it will still work if he turns it on. If he doesn't steal it, he can't watch television. Is he worse off not being able to watch television or watching it on a set that isn't really his?
The murderer. The fact is that the person who was a burden to his life isn't around any more; and in fact other people aren't more likely to kill him than they were before he committed the murder (unless they find out, of course).
So it's not all that obvious now that a person is necessarily worse off for doing what is morally wrong. Maybe some of you think that, on the whole, in each of these cases, the effects of morally wrong actions are worse than the right ones; but you can see that there's room for disagreement. It isn't absolutely clear-cut.
Now suppose this: You and your family have been captured and told to kill another person or you and your family will be tortured to death.
It is clearly inconsistent to kill another person. But if you don't, then you won't be around to enjoy the thrill of being consistent. How can you be better off in these circumstances for doing what is morally right?
After all, the end doesn't justify the means. That's what morality is all about. The goal you want to achieve doesn't make it okay to act inconsistently to get there.
So if you can save yourself from twenty-five years in prison by lying, it's still inconsistent to lie; it's still morally wrong. Is it worth it?
Fact: There are ways of being frustrated that do not involve choosing the frustration. We can be frustrated by circumstances over which we have no control.
Fact: It can happen (and often does) that the frustration involved in an immoral choice is less (sometimes much less) than the frustration involved in not making the immoral choice.
CONCLUSION: It would therefore seem that it is often to a person's advantage to make an immoral choice.
And of course everyone with his eyes open really recognizes this. Why else would so many people do what is wrong? They aren't stupid; far from it. It's the calculating people, the "men of the world," the "practical" people who are the ones who do what is morally wrong.
And they seem to do very well, thank you. I mentioned Stalin at the beginning of this book. Why should he do what is moral, if in doing it he would have to give up riches, prestige, power, and even the love of the fools he was oppressing?
But you don't have to look that far. Look at the people around you. Nice guys finish last. Honest people struggle through life; it's the smart people (who know when to be dishonest, and how to be dishonest and appear honest) who get ahead. Isn't it? Be realistic now.
2.2.2. The reason people are afraid of immorality
Then why don't people act intelligently? Why don't they look to their advantage, and weigh the probable benefits against the frustrations, and act morally when it is to their advantage, and immorally when it isn't?
Some do. But even they are afraid.
That was what we started with, remember. People are afraid to act immorally. Why? If they can get away with it.
HYPOTHESIS: People are afraid to act immorally because they are afraid that life might not end with death, and after they die they might be worse off for being immoral.
The hypothesis was expressed by the character Cephalus at the beginning of Plato's Republic (which, by the way, is about honesty):
"You see, Socrates, when you get near the time when you know the end is coming, fears and worries you never had before haunt you. The stories you used to laugh at about the Land of the Dead, and how bad people get their punishment there, torture your soul now with the thought that they might be true.
"Maybe it's weakness from age, or maybe it's because you're nearer now and can see better; but whatever it is, you get full of doubts and anxiety, and start trying to figure out if you have ever been dishonest to anyone. And if you find a lot of dishonesty in the records of your life, you begin waking up terrified in the middle of the night all the time like a child, and your life becomes just waiting for disaster."
(His position, interestingly enough, is that being wealthy is handy for being honest, because having all that you want removes a strong temptation to lie and cheat.)
But to return to the hypothesis itself, what it says is that people have two types of experience that tends to give them this notion of a life after death where things are made "fair."
First of all, people are aware of being treated unjustly by others or by "fate." That is, they try to achieve some perfectly legitimate goal, and find themselves thwarted either by the morally wrong behavior of others, or by circumstances of their lives that are no fault of any person. At the same time, they see apparently (even obviously) immoral people getting ahead by doing what is morally wrong.
This leads them to reason that, though their lives seem to be in their control because of their choices, their lives really are out of their control and are in the control of "luck." But you can't give up trying to control your life, because you can't avoid making choices (even to choose not to choose is a choice). So we seem to be in a situation where we have to pretend that we have control over our lives, but we actually don't.
Having to make choices, then, makes no sense unless life continues after this one, where what happens to you depends on your choice and not on "luck" or "fate."
In the second place, people see immoral people getting ahead by doing what is wrong and self-contradictory. The best way to circumvent "luck" is to see what the effects of your act are likely to be, and to trade off small deliberate frustrations for larger ones that are imposed by circumstances.
But this means that there is a fundamental inconsistency in human actions: the way to avoid frustrating yourself (a lot) is to deliberately try to frustrate yourself (a little). The intelligent way to behave is to behave inconsistently with the way things are--which is unintelligent. The realistic way to behave is to be unrealistic and pretend that things are as you want them to be, not as you know they really are. The advantageous way to behave is to do what is disadvantageous. The human (because reasonable) way to behave is to do what is inhuman. Being "really" honest means recognizing the situation for what it is (which involves this trade-off) and acting dishonestly.
But this is absurd. Therefore, people conclude that human conduct can't make any sense unless life continues after death in such a way that behaving honestly is rewarded and behaving dishonestly is punished somehow.
These are such natural ways of reasoning, and they reveal that life's ending with death makes life (as Albert Camus, who held this said) absurd and self-contradictory. The result is bound to be that anyone who considers that things can't really be nonsense at least suspects that some sort of reasoning like this might be valid.
And, of course, if it is valid, then we have what Shakespeare has Hamlet say:
To die--to sleep.
No more: and by a 'sleep' to say we end
the heartache, and the thousand natural shocks
that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
devoutly to be wished. To die; to sleep--
to sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there's the rub;
for in that sleep of death what dreams may come
when we have shuffled off this mortal coil
must give us pause.
Let us for the moment not consider whether this reasoning is valid or not, but examine whether a reasoning process such as this could be where in fact the fear of being immoral actually originates in people's minds all over the world. We in saw in the previous chapter that it can't come from parental training or society's views. Could it then be the result of the kind of thinking involved in this hypothesis?
Test of the hypothesis against the data
In short, does this hypothesis explain why:
1. everyone would have a fear attached to immoral conduct? Yes, because everyone has been thwarted to some extent by "fate" from achieving his goals, and everyone has realized the inconsistency in getting ahead by violating your nature.
It is also the case that human beings cannot accept contradictions as facts. This is the fundamental law of all thought: contradictions don't actually occur. Hence, if life is contradictory unless it continues after death, reasonable people would say, "well, then, it must continue."
2. people would think morality a serious matter? Yes, because if things are made "fair" after death, then no advantage here and now will make you better off for being immoral.
3. people would associate the fear with a divine source? Yes, because if there is a life after death where your choices are to have their proper effects, then people would reason that there must be some Being "running" the place, a Being who could know our secret thoughts and reward or punish us accordingly: who could know when we made a mistake or when we deliberately chose to violate our natures.
4. the definition of "immoral" would vary as it is observed to? Yes, because the definition depends on what a person thinks "inhuman" means; and we get this idea from our parents and those around us.
5. people would think their standards were the "right" ones? Yes, because people who think they have found out the facts about self-contradictory behavior would automatically recognize that this behavior is really part of what is forbidden.
Of course, insofar as they were not sure of the facts, they would tend to let others make up their own minds on the subject. And this is just the behavior we observe.
6. the standard is negative? Yes, if the deals with the limits of our nature and self-contradictory behavior, and leaves us alone as far as what we do within those limits is concerned.
7. a culture could change its standards in a short time? Yes, if it discovers new facts about what it means to act in an inhuman way.
The culture's standards could change if conditions changed making people think that the new conditions allow some act that was inconsistent under the former conditions, or forbid some act that was consistent formerly. This happens in the individual case, for instance, when a person marries. The new conditions permit acts (sexual intercourse) that were before inconsistent, and now forbid acts (dating) that before were consistent. This sort of thing can happen in society also.
But the standards can also change if the culture discovers a fact that makes it understand that it had mistakenly thought of an act as consistent when in fact it was self-contradictory--even with no change of life-conditions.
8. we can distinguish manners from morals? Yes, because manners are the acts that people expect for the sake of social harmony and being able to predict other's actions, while morals are not really the acts that society is afraid of so much as they are essentially the acts that the people think are self-contradictory. That is, contrary to the social-pressure theory, the fear is not what constitutes the "wrongness" of the act, but is a consequence of the recognition that it is wrong, coupled with the reasoning that forms the basis of this hypothesis.
9. the culture can recognize that its moral code is wrong? Yes, because the uncovering of new facts can reveal that the culture's view of "inhuman" is incomplete or mistaken.
10. the culture can accept reformers as good? Yes, because the reformer can convince the culture that he has the objective facts of the matter.
CONCLUSION: This theory explains all of the originally observed data about the fear people have of being immoral, and also explains all the facts that the other two theories could not explain.
Therefore, it is most reasonable to say that the fear actually comes from the notion that it might actually be true that there is a life after death in which morality is rewarded and immorality is punished.
The other two theories took account of the fact that we seem to fear a hell after death, but tried to explain this away as a kind of superstition, either arising from the emotions based on early training or the peculiarities of collective experience. We saw that both of these explanations don't work.
What we have discovered here is that the fear is probably not the result of superstition, but of a plausible reasoning process, in which life doesn't seem to make sense on any other supposition but that of its continuation beyond death.
This means that our scientific investigation into the grounds for the experience of fear of being immoral has revealed that it is the result of a view of what the facts are on the part of the people. That is, we have uncovered a pre-scientific reasoning process that could actually be valid.
The next step in our investigation into ethics, therefore, should be to consider this reasoning process itself. Is it actually valid? Is there really a continuation of life beyond death, such that those who make immoral choices face a disadvantage that would outweigh any advantage in this life from such a choice, and such that those who make moral choices could somehow fulfill them?
NEW HYPOTHESIS: There is in fact a life after death which (a) makes it always disadvantageous to make an immoral choice, and (b) fulfills moral choices.
But how could we test such a hypothesis? Where would be our data?
Basically, the data come from the results of an investigation of living bodies, particularly focusing on human life. To go into detail in such an investigation is beyond the scope of a book such as this. Those interested in this sort of thing can find it in my book Living Bodies.
But since a philosophical investigation of human beings as living does not necessarily draw out the implications for ethics of the conclusions it comes to, I am going to summarize the findings in the next chapter, show how they corroborate the rough-and-ready reasoning that gives people the fear of being immoral, and draw out some refinements dealing with what we can know of what this afterlife must be like, based on the data that allow us to conclude that there is on.
In the next chapter, I also want to relate these conclusions to what is taught in Christianity, for two reasons: First, to distinguish Christianity from philosophy, and especially ethics; it has often been misinterpreted as a kind of "extrapolation" from ethics, when in fact it is utterly different from an ethical theory. Secondly, to point up that Christianity, if a fact (and I am not going to try to prove that it is a fact), allows for a "reestablishing" of a life that has been deliberately messed up. Our conclusion from the observable data will be that life can make sense on the level of science and reason, but only if we never make an immoral choice. Once we do so, there is no natural way to restore the damage that has been done and start over.
Since I believe that Christianity is a fact, I would not like to leave the impression that the prospects for anyone who has been immoral (and that's all of us, isn't it?) is eternally dismal. There is hope for sinners. But since this is a book of philosophy, not Theology, I am just going to sketch what that hope is, and leave it to the Theologians to go into detail about its nature.
Let me say this, however, before getting into the next chapter:
WARNING: DO NOT PREJUDGE THE ISSUE
The fact that we are going to be talking about a life after death does not mean that we are entering the realm of religion. The hypothesis is that it is scientifically possible to establish that there is a life after death and to say something of its nature.
It is pure prejudice that you are talking "religion" as soon as you mention God or a life after death. Religion assumes that there is a God who has told us something, and bases itself on what God has allegedly said. Science bases itself on the observable data we have before us, and may conclude that there must be a God or a life after death.
For the scientist, whether there is a God, what His nature is, whether there is a life after death, are all theories which attempt to account for certain sets of observable data; and these theories are only as good as (a) the factuality of the data they are supposed to be accounting for, (b) how well they account for them, and (c) whether there is an alternative theory that can account for the data as well without using a God or a life after death as the explanation. Scientific theories concluding to such things also are subject to revision if new evidence comes to light, or if flaws are discovered in the reasoning process. Religion is not subject to these restrictions.
To the extent that a culture relegates belief in a life after death to silly superstition with no basis in fact, or believes in a life after death in which there is no punishment for wrongdoing, to that extent one can predict a moral decline in the culture.
Why is this? Simply because nothing in this life provides a motivating force anywhere near strong enough to make it unreasonable in many cases to avoid immorality. People will admire the right thing, but when it comes to the crunch, do the wrong thing, because it becomes silly to do the right thing and suffer for it.
And have we not seen this in our own culture? Why has cheating become so prevalent? Because people see that they can cheat and get away with it, and if they don't cheat, others who do get the better of them. If you tell them, "But if you cheat, you'll go to hell," they simply smile at you. "How quaint," they think. Even believers in God nowadays think, "God loves me too much to send me to hell for a little mistake," not realizing that it was the gentle Jesus who introduced the concept of hell into the Judaeo-Christian consciousness.
Summary of Chapter 2
The norm for judging the moral badness of an act is the concrete humanity of the person acting. This concrete humanity is the person's actual reality, containing all of the real characteristics the person has at the time he acts, whether these characteristics are innate or acquired.
An act is morally wrong if it contradicts any aspect of the person, whether the act fulfills any other aspect or not, and whether the aspect contradicted is known or not. Moral rightness and wrongness do not depend on knowledge or choice, but on the reality of the person acting.
Acts are morally right or wrong insofar as they agree with the reality of the person acting. Choices are moral or immoral insofar as they depend on the person's knowledge of the facts about whether his acts are right or wrong.
Acts or persons are considered morally good or bad insofar as they agree with our subjectively created ideals of the way we think an act or person "ought" to be. Something is also "good" if it leads to a goal we want, and "bad" if it hinders us from achieving it. Values are means toward achieving one's goal, which is the subjectively created ideal of oneself that one intends shall exist. Moral rightness and wrongness and morality and immorality are not questions of moral values or goodness or badness.
Human nature is human reality as related to its acts; therefore morally wrong behavior is a violation of human nature. But "natural" in this context does not mean "what is not artificial," nor does it mean "what is not usual." Further, traditional natural-law ethics tries to derive the moral command from the positive tendencies of the nature, and since these lead to free goals, this cannot actually be done.
But in the negative sense, every moral theory is a "natural law" theory because moral badness always involves a violation of what the theoretician thinks human reality (nature) is.
The moral command has at least three basic formulations: (1) You must never be willing to act in an inhuman way; (2) You must never deliberately try to fulfill any aspect of yourself at the expense of contradicting any other aspect; (3) You must never act in a way that is fundamentally dishonest. That is, you must not be a hypocrite.
The real issue in ethics is whether honesty is the best policy, meaning whether it is to your advantage to act consistently with the way things are.
Since choices set up goals, then immoral choices by their nature set up goals that are in part unrealizable, because in some respect they are self-contradictory. Therefore, immoral choices always involve frustration (having as a goal something that cannot be achieved).
But the fact is that there are ways of being frustrated that do not involve choosing the frustration; and it can occur that the frustration involved in an immoral choice is less than the frustration involved in not making such a choice. In these cases, it is to a person's advantage to be immoral.
But the reason people are afraid to be immoral is that they suspect that life might not end with death, and if it continues, the afterlife might be such as to make it disadvantageous to be immoral.
The reasoning behind this is twofold: (a) we see that our choices are supposed to be what controls our life; but in practice, our lives are really controlled more by circumstances than choice; and (b) the trade-off of a deliberately chosen frustration (immoral conduct) to avoid greater frustration means that the realistic thing to do is act unrealistically, the honest thing to do is act dishonestly, which is absurd.
This fits the data about the fear as actually experienced, including all of the facts that the other two theories could not explain. Therefore, it probably explains why people are afraid to be immoral.
The question then is whether this reasoning is valid, and the hypothesis to be investigated in the rest of the book is that it is: life goes on after death in such a way that immoral choices receive an effect worse than any advantage in being moral, and moral choices are fulfilled.
Exercises and questions for discussion
1. What about the view that holds that what is moral is "the greatest good (i.e. the greatest amount of satisfaction) for the greatest number?" (This is called "utilitarianism.") Can this theory make it consistent to avoid immorality?
2. Does it make sense to study ethics if you can't be immoral unless you know that an act is wrong? Wouldn't it be better not to find out?
3. Suppose somebody does something which is in fact wrong without realizing it, and then later finds out that it was wrong. What is the moral status of that person?
4. If you must never fulfill yourself at the expense of some other aspect of yourself, and if frustration means having a goal that can't be achieved, then the moral obligation says you mustn't frustrate any aspect of yourself. But doesn't this mean that it's morally commanded to do all kinds of things that have been regarded as morally wrong (like having sex whenever it's frustrating not to)?
5. If being morally good simply means acting consistently with what you really are, isn't it possible to be morally good without all this business of a life after death and some kind of heaven and hell?Next